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THE COMPROMISE OF 1850
SOME aspects of the unfinished work of the Polk administration demanded prompt attention. In default of congressional action, slavery and the slave-trade might still exist in the District of Columbia, as they had existed from its earliest settlement; fugitive slaves might continue to be withheld from their owners as they had been in the past; and the broad waste along the border of Texas and New Mexico might yet remain a sufficient boundary; but some provision must be made for the government of the territories acquired by the war. The discovery of gold in California had carried thither a population that could not remain politically unorganized, nor could the status of New Mexico be allowed to go unchanged without grave inconvenience and peril. Something must be done, and that quickly.
During the interval between the final adjournment of the thirtieth Congress and the assembling of the thirty-first the case of California took on a very different aspect. President Taylor sent agents thither and to New Mexico with instructions to inform the people of these territories of his desire that they should form constitutions for themselves and apply for admission to the Union as states.1 But before the agent sent to California reached his destination the movement desired by the president was already begun.
The conditions, in fact, made such action a necessity. On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered in the lower Sacramento Valley; and when the news spread a mad rush thither began by land and sea from all parts of the world. The settlers already in California left their business to engage in mining, and soldiers and sailors deserted from the service of the United States government to do the same. Everything was neglected except the search for gold, and labor rose at once to inordinate prices.2 Among the crowd attracted to California was a large proportion of reckless adventurers, who would have made it difficult to preserve order under almost any conditions; and under a government as weak and ill-established as that of the conquered province, the result was practical anarchy. An immediate remedy was found in the rough methods of popular tribunals;' but the civic instincts of the settlers in California, as well as of the people of the United States, forbade any continued dependence on a procedure so contrary to Anglo-Saxon traditions, and it was soon decided to adopt the plan which had been recommended by Benton.1 Governor Riley, the head of the de facto government left by the conquest, on hearing that Congress had adjourned without providing a government for California, called a convention to undertake this duty. The convention was held in September, 1849, and a constitution prohibiting slavery was adopted; and in due course of time a state government was set up to which Riley resigned his authority. It remained only for Congress to recognize what had been done.
1 Senate Docs., 31 Cong., 1 Sess., IX., No. 18, p. 10; Richardson, Messages and Papers, V., 26.
1 W. T. Sherman, Memoirs, I., 74, 82. 8 Hittell, California, II., 724-726.
In his annual message at the opening of Congress in December, 1849, written before the constitution of California had been received at Washington, President Taylor spoke of the movement to organize a state government there and of the prospect that a similar movement would soon take place in New Mexico, and suggested that Congress should await the action, avoiding meanwhile "the introduction of those exciting topics of a sectional character which have hitherto produced painful apprehensions in the public mind." January 23, 1850, in answer to a resolution of the Senate, he transmitted fuller information as to what was happening in the southwest and what he had done to bring it about.2
1 See p. 307, above.
* The message and accompanying documents are printed in full in Senate Docs., 31 Cong., 1 Sess., IX., No. 18.
The beginning of the thirty-first Congress, in December, 1849, was marked by a prolonged and fierce contest in the House over the speakership. The difficulty of making a choice lay in the fact that the thirteen Free-Soilers holding the balance of power were unwilling to allow the election of either the Democratic candidate, Cobb of Georgia, or the Whig candidate, Winthrop of Massachusetts. At one time W. J. Brown, a Democrat from Indiana, was about to be elected; but that prospect was dissipated by the revelation of the fact that he had made terms with the Free-Soilers.1 In the course of the struggle Toombs of Georgia declared: "I do not . . . hesitate to avow before this House and the country, and in the presence of the living God, that if by your legislation you seek to drive us from the territories of California and New Mexico, purchased by the common blood and treasure of the whole people, and to abolish slavery in this District, thereby attempting to fix a national degradation upon half the States of this Confederacy, / am for disunion."' To which Baker of Illinois replied: "In the name of the men of the North so rudely attacked, and speaking what I know to be their sentiments, I say a dissolution of this Union is, must be, shall be, impossible, as long as an American heart beats in an American bosom, or the Almighty sends His wisdom and His goodness to guide and to bless us."3
1 Cong. Globe, 31 Cong., 1 Sess., 19-24. 'Ibid., 38. 'Ibid., 39.
The chamber rang with applause for both. Like speeches were made by others, and it was evident that the outlook was becoming dangerous. At the end of three weeks spent in balloting, after a scene of the wildest disorder, Cobb was finally elected by a plurality vote, December 22, 1849.
While, however, the contest over the speakership was at last decided, the issue relative to slavery was not. Some action by Congress in regard to the organization of California and New Mexico was urgently demanded; but every approach to the subject now stirred up the fiercest sectional antagonism, and conservative men and lovers of the Union throughout the country were becoming deeply alarmed. So far as the territorial question was concerned, the issue was both simplified and concentrated by the action of California; for the state constitution fixed the boundaries of the new commonwealth as stretching along the Pacific coast from Oregon to Mexico, and hence there was no longer opportunity for extending the Missouri Compromise line. If California were admitted as a state, the only things left to contest were the extent of New Mexico, as against the claims of Texas, and the status of New Mexico (which included Utah) with regard to slavery. If New Mexico were really free, it was desirable for the South to push the boundaries of Texas westward; if New Mexico were not free, then the organization act ought to show that fact. The Mormons who had gone out to the Salt